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A Persistent Nationality
by [?]

At the moment when the Etruscans first appear in history, however, they appear as a race capable of acquiring and assimilating culture with great ease, rapidity, and certainty. No sooner do they come into contact with the Greek world than they absorb and reproduce all that was best and truest in Greek civilization. ‘Merely receptive–European Chinese,’ says, in effect, Mommsen, the great Roman historian: to me, that judgment, though true in some small degree, seems harsh indeed on a wider view, when applied to a people who begot at last the ‘Divina Commedia,’ the campanile of Florence, the dome of St. Peter’s, and the glories of the Uffizi and the Pitti Palace. It is quite true that the Etruscans themselves, like the Japanese in our own time, did at first accept most imitatively the Hellenic culture; but they gradually remoulded it by their own effort into something new, growing and changing from age to age, until at last, in the Italian renaissance, they burst out with a wonderful and novel message to all the rest of dormant Europe.

One of the most persistent key-notes of this underlying Etruscan character is the solemn, weird, and gloomy nature of so much of the true Etruscan workmanship. From the very beginning they are strong, but sullen. Solidity and power, rather than beauty and grace, are what they aim at; and in this, Michael Angelo was a true Tuscan. If we look at the massive old Etruscan buildings, the Cyclopean walls of Faesulae and Volterrae, with their gigantic unhewn blocks, or the gloomy tombs of Clusium, with their heavy portals, and then at the frowning facade of the Strozzi or the Pitti Palace, we shall see in these, their earliest and latest terms, the special marks of Tuscan architecture. ‘Piled by the hands of giants for mighty kings of old,’ says Macaulay, well, of the Cyclopean walls. ‘It somewhat resembles a prison or castle, and is remarkable for its bold simplicity of style, the unadorned huge blocks of stone being hewn smooth at the joints only,’ says a modern writer, of Brunelleschi’s palatial masterpiece. Every visitor to Florence must have noticed on every side the marks of this sullen and rugged Etruscan character. Compare for a moment the dark bosses of the Palazzo Strozzi, the ‘apre energie‘ of the Palazzo Vecchio, the ‘beaute sombre et severe‘ of the mediaeval Bargello, with the open, airy brightness of the Doge’s Palace, or the glorious Byzantine gold-and-blue of St. Mark’s at Venice, and you get at once an admirable measure of this persistent trait in the Etruscan idiosyncrasy. Tuscan architecture is massive and morose where Venetian architecture is sunny and smiling.

Now, Tuscan religion has in all times been specially influenced by the peculiarly gloomy tinge of the Tuscan character. It has always been a religion of fear rather than of love; a religion that strove harder to terrorize than to attract; a religion full of devils, flames, tortures, and horrors; in short, a sort of horrible Chinese religion of dragons and monstrosities, and flames and goblins. In the painted tombs of ancient Etruria you may see the familiar devil with his three-pronged fork thrusting souls back into the seething flood of a heathen hell, as Orcagna’s here thrust them back similarly into that of its more modern Christian successor. All Etruscan art is full throughout of such horrors. You find their traces abundantly in the antique Etruscan museum at Florence; you find them on the mediaeval Campo Santo at Pisa; you find them with greater skill, but equal repulsiveness, in the work of the great Renaissance artists. The ‘ghastly glories of saints’ the Tuscan revels in. The most famous portion of the most famous Tuscan poem is the ‘Inferno’–the part that gloats with minute and truly Tuscan realism over the torments of the damned in every department of the mediaeval hell. And, as if still further to mark the continuity of thought, here in Orcagna’s frescoes at Santa Maria Novella you have every horror of the heathen religion incongruously mingled with every horror of the Christian–gorgons and harpies and chimaeras dire are tormenting the wicked under the eyes of the Madonna; centaurs are shooting and prodding them before the God of Love from the torrid banks of fiery lakes; furies with snaky heads are directing their punishments; Minos and AEacus are superintending their tasks; and, in the centre of all, a huge Moloch demon is devouring them bodily in his fiery jaws, with hideous tusks as of a Japanese monster.